Managing the side effects of immunotherapy

The side effects of checkpoint immunotherapy are different from other cancer treatments. Not everyone will experience the same side effects, and some people may have no side effects. The side effects can vary depending on the type of immunotherapy you receive and how your body responds.

Since your immune system takes care of your whole body, immunotherapy can cause inflammation in any of the organs in the body. This can mean that some people with an autoimmune disease such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis may find it difficult to have immunotherapy safely. Discuss this with your doctor if you have an autoimmune disease.

Common side effects include fatigue, skin rash and diarrhoea – which can vary in severity and duration.

Side effects are likely to be more severe if you are taking a combination of immunotherapy drugs or having immunotherapy with other cancer treatments.

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Let your doctor know about side effects
As immunotherapy works differently from other cancer treatments, it’s important to work closely with your doctor to monitor your response.

Before immunotherapy starts, discuss the specific side effects you may experience with your doctor. Ask your doctor or nurse which side effects to watch out for or report, and who to contact after hours.

During treatment, let your medical team know about any side effects you experience. Side effects can be better managed when they are reported early. If they are not treated, side effects may become serious, and treatment may need to be stopped until the side effects are better controlled. Occasionally, immunotherapy must be stopped permanently if the side effects are too severe.

Side effects of immunotherapy

immunotherapy side effects

Managing the side effects of immunotherapy

Side effects can sometimes begin within days of starting treatment, but more commonly they occur weeks or even months after starting treatment.

In some rare cases, they can occur after treatment has ended. Work with your doctor to develop a plan for how long to look out for potential side effects.

To manage the side effects, it is important to let your health care team know about new symptoms. Even if you are experiencing side effects, you can continue to benefit from immunotherapy.

Side effects will be graded to help decide how to treat them.

Moderate and severe side effects – These are often treated with steroids such as prednisone.

Severe side effects – In some cases, people may need to be hospitalised or treated with high doses of steroids if side effects are severe. Side effects often improve with treatment, but sometimes they can be serious and people will be unable to continue immunotherapy.

This information was last reviewed in June 2017
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